Watching killings became normal, says Genocide survivor

2015-09-02 09:35
Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter, 83, and Rwandan genocide survivor Emmanuel Mwezi, 29. (Thomas Hartleb, News24)

Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter, 83, and Rwandan genocide survivor Emmanuel Mwezi, 29. (Thomas Hartleb, News24)

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Johannesburg - Emmanuel Mwezi was 9-years-old when he heard a member of the Hutu militia say he would kill him and his family if he found them.

Mwezi was hiding in a house while on the run during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The man was standing at the window. Mwezi, his mother, two brothers and one of his sisters were on the other side of it.

"I knew the man’s younger brother. My mother knew him," he said at the unveiling of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre on Tuesday. It will be opened to the public early next year.

His older sister, his best friend from school and many neighbours were killed. Hutu death squads called the Interahamwe murdered up to one million members of the Tutsi ethnic group and moderate Hutus between April and July that year.

‘Witnessing killing became normal’

His father, a construction worker, was killed in 1990 when he was accused of being a spy.

"I saw people being killed. You get the shock of your life, but it became normal somehow."

Mwezi saw one man run into a lake in a bid to get away from his killers. Hutu militias on both banks shot at him as he tried to swim away.

When the killing started, their Hutu neighbour came to them and told them he would help them. He hid Mwezi, two of his brothers, his sister and mother in his house for three days before the Interahamwe came.

They were moved to the man’s mother’s house, where they hid for two weeks. Then the man’s younger brother took them in.

After that they had to survive in the bush. One of his brothers left them, knowing that if they were found together they would all be killed.

He said they were lucky as they were in an area, the Mvumba district, which was quickly recaptured by soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

"We survived not because we knew how to hide, but because a Hutu decided to help us and hid us. Not because he expected anything, but because he made a choice," he said.

The man’s name was Kajurizi Donat.

"I will never forget him. He will always be my hero," Mwezi said.

‘This centre is a living thing’

Mwezi is now 29. He came to South Africa in 2009 and will graduate from Monash University this year.

Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter was 3, and already introduced to the art of winemaking by his father, when the Nazis came to power. They were living in Poland at the time. His family are Hasidic Jews.

They fled to Warsaw and spent two and a half years in the Warsaw Ghetto. He survived the uprising against the Nazis there in April 1943 and six concentration camps.

"It can happen anywhere," he said, speaking in a strong, clear voice. He is 83 now and living in Canada. He spends his time taking students to Germany and Poland, teaching them the history of the Holocaust and of iniquity in general.

"A centre like this is not just a place where you can look at horrible pictures. It’s a living thing."

As he spoke a car backfired loudly three times on Jan Smuts Avenue, causing several of the elderly people at the event to jump in their seats.

"We don’t want the Holocaust to be an academic thing that you study at university," he said.

Read more on:    rwanda  |  johannesburg  |  genocide  |  holocaust

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